Mar 16 2022

Q&A: Montana CIO Kevin Gilbertson Explains Why His State Is Free of Mainframes

The state faced obstacles to cloud migration but enjoys the benefits of robust IT modernization.

In an exclusive interview with StateTech, Montana CIO Kevin Gilbertson looks back on how his state decommissioned its mainframe computer after moving all applications and workloads away from it. “We are going to continue cloud adoption and choose to go cloud wherever it most makes sense and emphasize that where we can — Software as a Service certainly wherever possible,” Gilberston told StateTech last year. Gilbertson succeeded Tim Bottenfield, who pursued a policy of getting the state off of mainframes.   

Along the way, Montana overcame challenges and seized the advantages of adopting cloud services.

STATETECH: Montana has finally abandoned mainframe computing. Can you walk us through the motivations and milestones for migrating away from mainframe computing?

Gilbertson: In November 2021, Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte issued the final commands that shut down the state mainframe. This was just one step on a mission to modernize and eliminate outdated legacy technology in the state. It’s a strategy that includes a concentrated effort to rationalize current custom applications to consumer off-the-shelf solutions, becoming more aggressive in moving to the cloud and moving toward platforms that offer low-code/no-code development to encourage business users to participate in the drive toward being 100 percent digital.

The move started and primarily took place before I was appointed to the CIO role. It occurred over years and culminated with two significant applications being ported from the mainframe to a midtier solution in the final months of the transition. Ideally, these will be examined and modernized as well, but that is not an immediate concern.

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STATETECH: What benefits have you already seen or do you expect to see soon from this migration? How have these advantages been made clear to relevant stakeholders and government officials?

Gilbertson: To begin, the mainframe was costing Montana close to $2 million per year to maintain. This figure does not include the people with the expertise needed to continue its operation (both internal and contractors), resources that are becoming harder to find. In addition to the monetary savings, the state will see a significant benefit by being able to pivot the resources consumed by both maintaining the mainframe and the effort to move away. This enables a focus on higher-impact projects using technologies that provide a much faster time to value with better availability of talent in the market.

While eliminating the mainframe was a major milestone, the modernization effort in Montana is much larger than just the mainframe, including embracing cloud computing. For this move to be more impactful than just moving from servers in our data center to the equivalent in the cloud, there were other digital transformation efforts — such as moving off of as many custom applications to either consumer off-the-shelf or platform solutions and a push toward low-code/no-code development — to ease this transition. These tools are a major advantage that we are communicating to stakeholders. Government officials are already pushing toward digital.

Kevin Gilbertson, CIO, Montana
While eliminating the mainframe was a major milestone, the modernization effort in Montana is much larger than just the mainframe, including embracing cloud computing.”

Kevin Gilbertson CIO, Montana

As a matter of fact, the governor has challenged us to be 100 percent digital as soon as possible. We are working with cloud vendors to provide the functionality necessary to make this a reality. This transition is a means to put power back in the hands of the business.

RELATED: What are the main options for migrating off of a legacy mainframe?

STATETECH: StateTech recently polled readers on obstacles to cloud migration. What roadblocks did Montana’s face? How did you overcome them? Is it that simple, or is it more complex?

Gilbertson: We have had a similar experience in Montana with many of the same concerns from your survey. First, moving to the cloud is not as simple as handing the keys over to a cloud vendor. The move comes with its own challenges and expertise needed to successfully transition. To address some of these concerns, our central IT organization, the State Information Technology Services Division, is also undergoing internal transformation.

Our CISO has been working toward cloud certifications for some time. We have recently implemented a training coordination role with plans to grow that role to include other people and cultural growth initiatives. We have created a cloud bureau focused on building strategy for cloud migration along with the coordination of movement to the cloud. Finally, we have created a bureau focused on digital workflow, which includes low-code/no-code solutions. We are taking our time and not planning to move overnight, but as it makes sense from a functionality and cost perspective as we maintain our own data centers.

DIVE DEEPER: Find out how three states have moved on from their mainframes.

STATETECH: Can you specify how low-code or no-code solutions might manifest in the state government enterprise? Are the advantages simply saving money and manpower?

Gilbertson: Saving money and manpower is certainly an attractive benefit of low-code and no-code solutions. Moving to low-code platforms allows shorter project timelines with less overall risk.

However, the motivation is much simpler than that. First, I believe our digital transformation efforts actually require it for us to see the benefit anytime soon. When you consider the number of paper forms that need to be transitioned (and I would count PDFs that are filled in and printed to be just another paper form) — and pile on top of that all the applications built 20 years ago that are simple data collection forms — there is far too much work for IT to accomplish the transition alone.

Second, as with any other organization, we have shadow IT. By providing sanctioned options for low-code and no-code development, I hope to put a governance structure in place and sanction what was once considered shadow IT. Long term, it is my hope that this enables the state to be more responsive and adapt faster to needs from citizens, new statutes, etc.

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STATETECH: Where cloud migration is concerned, what are the next major goals for Montana’s IT strategy? What do you hope to achieve in the next several years?

Gilbertson: Our next major milestone is a move to disaster recovery in the cloud. This will be a major push this year. Next, we want to move aging custom applications, such as our unemployment insurance system, to the cloud.

Once again, cloud migration for us is not simply moving existing applications from our servers to the cloud. We will not rule that completely out; however, where possible, it is our hope to migrate to Software as a Service or a platform when that is not possible. We want to get out of the custom software business and get to a place where the systems we use are on a roadmap for new features, improvement and modernization. It is my hope that we never have an application that is using 20-year-old technology and requires major investments to replace.

EXPLORE: What are some myths around cloud migration that should be dispelled?

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